Review: The Reluctant Witness

reluctant witness

The Reluctant WitnessDon Everts. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: One reluctant witness shares personal narrative, helpful principles, and survey data that indicate that spiritual conversations may be delightful rather than dreadful.

Most Christians are reluctant to bear witness to their faith. The idea of this raises images of street preachers, intolerance, arguments, and offended friends. Most of us don’t want to be those kind of persons. We love people too much, and frankly want to be loved by them as well. Don Everts was like so many of us, except for a small problem. He was a campus minister, part of whose job was to witness to his faith, and help others learn to do this.

In this book, Everts shares his own journey of discovery that spiritual conversations can be delightful, not just for the believing person, but also for the other person in the conversation. He also shares Barna research that both offers support for his contention, and a bleak picture that indicates that if anything, there is far more reluctance on the part of Christians to engage in spiritual conversations, even with each other, than a couple decades ago.

First the bad news. We are having fewer spiritual conversations, our level of discomfort in having these conversations has risen, we mention Jesus and the Bible less, even though we know we should have these conversations. Furthermore, these practices find parallels in the general culture. The main reason for our silence is fear, particularly the fear of offense. We also feel far less prepared by our churches. In 1993, 77% felt their churches prepare them well to speak of their faith. Today it is only 57%.

Through various conversations–on a long bus ride, with a neighbor, and others, Everts discovered that these conversations could be delightful, and that some of those he conversed with became friends, and some even changed their beliefs. He describes five myths and how these conversations gave the lie to them for him:

  1. Spiritual conversations take place in special places, at special moments, by special people. The reality is that most belief-changing conversations took place with friends in everyday settings.
  2. Spiritual conversations are serious and sober events. The reality is that laughter and joy are actually a significant part of conversations for both parties.
  3. In a spiritual conversation I need to be able to give the right answer. Actually, what is more important is having the chance to ask one’s questions and responses that are humble and honest, which sometimes means, “I don’t know.”
  4. Most spiritual conversations involve conflict, which ruins everything.  Actually, this turns out not to be a significant factor in the data, and most people expect some disagreement and even think it is healthy.
  5. Spiritual conversations are burdensome duties that are, in the end, painful and regrettable.  Actually, 35 percent of Americans report making a change in their lives because of a spiritual conversation. Among Christians, 38 percent report that someone has come to faith after a spiritual conversation. And only 14 percent of those who would identify as non-Christians said “no” to the statement “I’m glad about my latest spiritual conversation.”

This doesn’t mean that negative conversations never occur. Rather, all this suggests they are far less frequent than imagined, and especially as we grow in our conversation skills. Everts goes into the factors that turn reluctant conversationalists like him into eager conversationalists. He discovered that the difference was that eager conversationalists look for spiritual conversations in everyday life, they pursue and initiate conversations, they are open to share their faith in a wide variety of ways that are sensitive to those with whom they speak, and they gently push through awkward moments.

One thing Everts doesn’t name, although I think it is assumed in his account, is that Christians are genuinely persuaded of the goodness of what they have believed. I can’t help believe that for some, they have at least in part believed a mythical cultural narrative of Christian faith as naive, narrow-minded and intolerant. Sometimes, this is the case despite the transforming work that has taken place in their lives. One of the delightful moments in the book was when Everts admitted in a class where a professor belittled the idea of a chaste lifestyle, both the problems he faced when he previously had embraced the morality his professor commended, and how trusting Christ in the area of his sexuality had made a huge positive difference in his dating relationships.

Beyond all the interesting statistics, the most winsome part of this book was Everts’ own modest example. His story, and the principles he offers are so helpful for those who have a sense that their faith is too good to keep to themselves and want to break through their reluctance. He helps us see that much of it comes down to having good conversations with people, where we welcome questions, listen with respect, and share what we’ve found with honesty and humility. If Everts is right, we might even find ourselves laughing together with our friends. That would be delightful, wouldn’t it?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: A Grander Story

A Grander Story

A Grander StoryRick Hove and Heather Holleman. Orlando: Cru Press, 2017.

Summary: An invitation to professors and graduate students who are Christians to live for the grand vision of God’s story in their life in higher education, including narratives of six professors, and practical recommendations.

Very simply, this book nails it in casting a vision for Christians called to academia. The writers, associated with a sister ministry to the one I work with set out a vision of lives nobly lived as part of God’s great story. I found myself saying “Amen” on almost every page and thinking of groups of grad students and faculty who would be helped by reading and discussing this book.

The opening four chapters of the book articulate the grander story, the story of God’s redemptive purposes in the world and the grand person of Christ at the heart of the story. Then they turn to discuss the grander being and grander doing that faculty captivated by this vision might experience. It begins with being a different kind of person under a new leader. It extends into all that faculty do in teaching, research, relationships, and service. They invite faculty to consider the metanarratives of their disciplines and the distinctive contributions Christian thought might make in the research questions they explore. This life is also marked by the different ways they engage disagreements and how they serve others.

The second part of the book consists of six narratives by faculty working in different fields: Ken Elzinga in economics, Susan Siaw in psychology, Walter Bradley in mechanical engineering, Phil Bishop in exercise physiology, John Walkup in electrical engineering, and Heather Holleman in English. Their accounts describe their academic work, their relationships with students and how they have had opportunities to witness to Christ with students and peers, opportunities in missions, and participation in faculty groups on their campuses. Heather Holleman’s account was especially striking to me in its narrative of how she intentionally arrives early and prays for each of the students who will be in the seats of her classroom.

The final two chapters summarize these accounts in “best practices” and a concluding chapter that articulates the authors longings for higher education and Christian presence in this arena. The book also includes two appendices dealing with legal questions. Many professors are obeying laws that don’t exist and not availing themselves of the freedoms they have. At the same time, there are appropriate cautions of being aware of policies about use of university emails and facilities.

The book is designed to be read and discussed by graduate students and faculty. Short chapters with many personal examples that readers can identify with are very helpful. Each chapter ends with several discussion questions that could be discussed in a 45 minute luncheon meeting. I also think the book does a great job in casting a vision and offering hope for what can happen in colleges and universities for those in the church who might despair about the “godless university.” Anyone who reads this has to conclude that our colleges and universities and the people who work in them are part of the grander story God is writing.

Review: Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the Huddle

Breaking the HuddleDon Everts, Val Gordon, Doug Schaupp. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores how Christian communities can move from being huddled groups to become witnessing, and even “conversion” communities where growth through people coming to faith becomes the norm.

One of the realities of many Christian communities, whether they are churches, or campus groups or groups in other places is that they are huddled. It is not that they don’t believe in sharing their faith with those who don’t believe, but that’s not happening very often, and even less often does someone actually come to faith. If these churches or groups grow, they usually grow from people who already believe and have joined them after leaving another group.

The writers of this book (a pastor and two collegiate ministers) believe that can change and write in the early chapters of this book of how groups can go from being huddled, to witnessing to becoming conversion communities where most of the growth is through people coming to faith. In the first three chapters, they explore the characteristics of each type of community and what communities have done to move from one type to another. They also note the reality of entropy, and how vision for evangelism quickly leaks and energy is lost.

Discipleship cycle

Discipleship Cycle

In Part Two, they outline two “macrostrategies” to help groups transition from huddled to witnessing communities. One is to nurture discipleship momentum through incorporating the discipleship cycle in which hearing the word is followed by making an active response, which is then debriefed. This third step is often neglected meaning that people have experiences but do not reflect on their significance and to what God might next be calling one. Only this kind of transforming discipleship can sustain witness.

They then turn to the need to mobilize relational witness. Here they draw on earlier work by Everts and Schaupp (I Once Was Lost) in integrating an understanding of the “five thresholds of post-modern conversion” into a community’s life. These steps recognize that in coming to faith, many people cross thresholds from trusting a Christian to becoming curious to opening up to change to actively seeking to entering the kingdom. In this book, they extend these ideas to how communities can respond appropriately to people at different points in their journey to faith.

5 thresholds

Five Thresholds

Part Three is perhaps the most significant part of this book as the authors talk about the dynamics of conversion communities, where people are regularly coming to faith. They explore the significance of lingering in “God moments,” lifting up their eyes, and laboring in the harvest. In these ways, God moments become God movements. The most significant insight for me was the idea of not being content with individual conversions but looking for whether God may be doing something more in which many others might also come to faith. These communities also align their vision, their structures, and their efforts to develop people around these God movements. The concluding part talks about how one leads the change and in fact incarnates the change.

This is a hopeful book, even for the many who might still feel they are in the huddle. The authors write at the beginning:

“Every athlete needs to take a knee for some time as she circles up with her teammates to figure out the next play. But then the team breaks the huddle and heads back out to the playing field. Breaking the huddle is an inherently hopeful, purposeful thing to do. May all our communities break the huddle and engage in the next play God has for us.”

The authors give not only a number of practical how-to’s but share their own journeys of discovery along the way. They lay out the work to be done, but also the hope for real change in our communities. Each chapter concludes with a prayer, and questions groups studying through this book can use together, making this ideal for church or ministry leadership teams.

Doug and Val are colleagues and friends in the collegiate ministry which is my day job. What I most appreciate about what they have done here (along with Don Everts!) is to integrate into a seamless whole different “pieces” of ministry strategy, weaving them together with a narrative of transforming communities from huddled to witnessing to conversion, and moving from isolated “God moments” to ongoing “God movements.” They tell a story rooted in God’s gracious intentions to draw people to himself, and recover for us the wonder of being communities instrumental in seeing significant numbers of those people experience new life in Christ.

Review: Meet Generation Z

Meet Generation Z

Meet Generation Z, James Emery White. Grand Rapids: Baker 2017.

Summary: The book profiles the generation born since 1993, describing them as the first “post-Christian” generation, and what the church in the US must do to reach this generation.

I was a boomer. During my years in ministry I’ve watched books come and go about ministering with boomers, X-ers, millenials (my son’s generation), and now generation “Z” (those born after 1993). It’s tempting to get a bit jaded with this succession of “generation” books, but the contentions of this book, which I’ve seen on the ground, persuade me that its message is worth heeding.

Fundamentally, White argues that what distinguishes this generation is that it is the first truly “post-Christian” generation in the U.S.  He notes the research that the fastest growing religious affiliation in this age group is “none.” This is a group that is marked by the Recession of 2008 with an entrepreneurial spirit. They are wi-fi-enabled, multiracial, and sexually fluid. They have been “under-parented” (compared to the helicopter parenting of millenials) and robbed of childhood, growing old younger. Pornography has a pervasive presence in their lives and is wreaking havoc. (I will vouch for this. When I meet young men, I assume that pornography is an issue in their lives and am surprised when it isn’t.) And the church has lost its voice by and large, caught up in the politics and culture wars of a past generation. He likens this to a verse from the calamitous twelfth century speaking of “when Christ and his saints slept.”

White devotes the second half of this book to how a church awakened might engage and reach the rising generation. He argues that the church must recover a sense of its own identity as a distinctive counter-culture, one, holy, catholic, apostolic, and shaped by its mission to call a deeply fallen world back to God. The answer is neither withdrawal or efforts to grasp political influence, but “to pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other…. ” In short, his call is for the church to recover what it means to be Christ-like.

What does this call for in our efforts to engage generation Z. It means recovering a voice of evangelism and a prophetic voice that does not veer into heresy. It means translating the gospel without transforming it. It means re-thinking our communication for a generation with eight second attention spans, who think in terms of texts and tweets. It means using the awe and wonder of both art and science in our apologetic. And fundamentally, it means developing a church that says, “it’s about them” — hiring staff from this generation, reaching its men, welcoming their children, developing an invitational culture, and providing for the discipleship of those who follow Christ.

The book concludes with three messages given at the author’s church that model the kind of communication he believes is necessary. One is on gay marriage, one on the spiritual world, and one appealing to science in an argument of why believe in God. The style is both engaging and direct, and unapologetic about Christian beliefs on any of the questions engaged, but also in touch with prevailing concerns.

What’s fascinating to me is that I think White is simply commending the work that the church, if it is to remain vital, must do in every generation, while applying that very specifically to the context of this particular generation. Yet if White is right, it is also the case that this may also be a singular moment. He writes at the beginning of the book of Christopher Dawson, and the six ages of the church, where the church rose to the challenges of transition to a new epoch. He considers us at another one of these moments. White articulates how he is seeking to lead his own church to rise to this moment, which he considers one of both great peril if we miss it, and great opportunity if we will seize it.

So what will it be?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Unparalleled

Unparalleled

Unparalleled, Jared C. Wilson. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

Summary: A book that makes the case for Christianity by proposing that the unique elements in Christian faith’s account of God, humanity, Jesus, salvation, history, and the end make it  both worthy and credible.

I love to tell the story;
’tis pleasant to repeat
what seems, each time I tell it,
more wonderfully sweet.
I love to tell the story,
for some have never heard
the message of salvation
from God’s own holy Word.

-Katherine Hankey

I not only love telling the story of the Christian faith but listening to others tell it, even when they are speaking of things I’ve heard before. Reading Jared Wilson’s account of the compelling character of the Christian faith in its “unparalleled” claims was “wonderfully sweet” and I commend reading such books even by “seasoned” Christians so we can better tell the story ourselves.

In a conversational style, Wilson recounts his own efforts to tell the story, and along the way, highlights how so often the good news that we share is a message most have never heard before and shatters their misconceptions. He speaks of a God who is great, utterly good and just, and yet who may forgive even the most heinous crimes. How can that be? He talks about the challenging matter of a God who is three and yet One, and whose relational character serves as the basis of all loving relationships.

He explores how the Christian view of humanity reveals us as both beautiful and yet broken reflections of the beautiful God. He opens up to us the uniqueness of Jesus, who had the audacity to claim to be God, lived a life that backed this claim, and then amazingly died and rose to triumph over evil and death. All this was to accomplish a salvation that rests utterly on what he has done, and not what we do, and propels the forgiven and beloved into global mission that speaks bring a message both universal and unparalleled that anticipates a new heaven and earth, a glorious future that transcends both our own lives, and life on earth as we know it.

I think there are several good uses for this book. One I’ve already alluded to is that it helps Christians, both young and old alike, to crystallize our message for this generation. A second use is as a more accessible version of a book like Mere Christianity to offer those exploring the faith and how it could possibly make sense to become a Christian. For both, this is not a book so much of apologetics as that upon which good apologetics is founded, a good explanation of basic Christian belief, or doctrine.

The only thing that mars this book in my opinion are the few places where the author feels compelled to speak critically of Christians outside his own (Baptist Reformed) tradition, taking shots at points at both emergent and mainline Christians. There are other places where this kind of engagement may be appropriate but it detracts from the “mere Christianity” feel of so much of the book that is its strength.

That said, I found myself enjoying the old, old story being told by a new generation of story-teller. No doubt, I will draw upon this book as I have chances to share that same story.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Beyond Awkward

Beyond AwkwardBeyond Awkward: When Talking About Jesus is Outside Your Comfort ZoneBeau Crosetto. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: Talking about faith with others often feels awkward and is why most of us don’t do it. This book explores how to press through that awkwardness to important and life-changing conversations.

Beau Crosetto thinks it is worth it to press beyond the awkwardness of speaking about one’s Christian faith. To begin with, he contends that there are people who are waiting for us to show up. Taking risks is worth it when one experiences the awesome privilege of helping someone else believe. That said, there are differences between good awkward and just plain weird and the most important thing is waiting on God and looking for openness. We often think we need to know lots of information when what many are looking for is how can faith in Christ transform a life. What Crosetto shares here in the first part of his book is not necessarily a lot different from other books on Christian witness.

it is what comes next that sets the book apart. Crosetto contends that when we engage in witness, we may be called to engage in spiritual warfare–a word of discernment, a prayer of healing or the demonic confronted. He contends that God can speak to us in these situations and gives help for discerning God’s voice. Using Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, he argues that God’s role is to send us and set up situations, and our role simply to follow in obedience. That doesn’t mean we are passive but rather that we take risks to explore whether God is opening up opportunities with people without forcing unwanted conversations. He deals with how to discern between genuine care and pushiness and concludes with a lengthier chapter on turning conversations toward a discussion of Christ and inviting a response.

I suspect that some who read this will balk as they come across the supernatural material–if they are from Western countries. Others might still find Crosetto “pushy” but what struck me was his stories and how his risks came out of relationship, how he was willing to wait when others weren’t ready, and how his trust that the Spirit of God was in this venture was vindicated over and over by people appreciative that he had raised issues they were struggling with, with the offer of hope in Christ’s transforming work.

In the academic circles I work around, it is easy to get drawn into a world of subtlety, nuance, and indirectness about matters of ultimate importance. Furthermore, I think we often fail to account for the ways spiritual warfare works in darkening minds and obscuring truth. The forthrightness and spiritual discernment this author writes about is vital in this world, even if it may sometimes seem jarring. What won me over in this book is the winsomeness of a person who cares deeply to share with others the reality that can transform others for good and who is willing to be at God’s disposal.